Pandemic, Pandemonium, Panic, and Poetry

Crystals, flowers, and fear

The word “pandemic” derives from the Greek words “pan,” meaning “all” and “demos,” meaning “people.”

The etymology of “pandemic” is different but somewhat related to the word “panic,’ which traces back to the French, “panique” and the Greek god Pan, the deity with goat legs, the torso of a man, and goat horns growing from his man-like skull.

According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Pan became an exceedingly popular god whose name soldiers invoked in the heat of battle. Later, the terror and chaos that arises during war was also associated with this god.

During Roman times, Pan increased in importance, becoming “known as the All, a sort of universal god, which was a play on the other meaning of the word pan.

My husband, a medical news journalist, began covering daily coronavirus reports the last week in January, after our return from the Palm Beach Poetry Festival.

By mid February, we saw how the virus was spreading like a panic. February 18, the stock market crashed in a virus-related scare, and I began to wonder if AWP would be canceled. But at that point I thought it would be fear mongering to ask my friends if they still planned to go.

Two weeks later, the conference went ahead as planned, but by late February and even into the first week of March, many of my friends decided not to go because they didn’t want to inadvertently bring the virus back to their own communities.

It wasn’t until the first week in March that the pandemic arrived in the county where I live. That week we were already doing “chicken wings” and “foot bumps” as greetings at the yoga studio where I practice. We were spacing ourselves at least six feet apart. The YMCA where I swim laps closed its group exercise programs, swimming lessons, and their child care hours.

The new coronavirus pandemic has also caused pandemonium, Latin for “the place of all demons.” It created “panic buying” among the people, as we raced to stores to buy cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and pantry items.

On Thursday, March 5, I pulled into a Trader Joe’s parking lot after a blissful yoga class. Even under ordinary circumstances, it’s inadvisable to enter a Trader Joe’s parking lot after practicing yoga, just because of the parking lot squeeze.

But I braved suburban car frenzy to buy some wine and a few other items for dinner, and was shocked to find almost the entire store depleted of bread, milk, frozen food, and staples like rice, pasta, and canned goods. (Plenty of beer and wine remained!)

It turned out that while I had been supine in savasana in a state of relaxation, the county school system had announced that schools would close and would transfer to an online platform.

One man in the county had been hospitalized and died, and several school staff members had come down with covid19. Apparently, many individuals had traveled to Italy during February and thus were exposed at airports or at their destinations.

Like “pandemic,” and “panic,” the word “poetry” comes to English from the Greek and Latin. Greeks used poesis and poeitis to denote a maker, an author, a poet.

We are all makers now. We are pan-artists. Some will make songs and stories to express their longings, their fears, their loneliness,

Others will bake bread, make yogurt, and grow gardens, domestic work that many have now recently embraced if they have the privilege of staying home.

I’ve written only two poems so far this month. The concept of April as poetry writing month has lost urgency for me. Poetry and art and all forms of myth-making and meaning-making are a means of spiritual survival now. It’s an ongoing practice that continually renews and sustains me.

Yoga, poetry, painting, long walks, and chopping vegetables are my way of loving the world and loving life. I hope all beings everywhere can look within and find what makes them whole, what heals them.

Getting Ready For April and National Poetry Month

I could spend an entire day navigating the links Maria Popova includes in her articles on Brain Pickings.

In this one, a letter Frida Khalo wrote to Georgia O’Keefe, Popova extolls the virtues of creating community through letter writing and sharing. She praises the compassion Khalo and O’Keefe showed each other when one of them was suffering, and uses their correspondence as evidence that artists don’t work in complete solitude. We thrive on support and love.

She links to Brian Eno’s concept of “scenius,” a play on the word “genius,” meaning a collective of ideas, an ecology of artists and thinkers who respond to each other and the world, which she found in the book Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon.

Reading these two articles has inspired me to get back to a practice of sharing my creative process rather than storing it privately until I’m ready to publish (even though I am, in fact, publishing it here).

The poem I’ll be sharing is raw, unfinished writing that I do as a ludic exercise. I may or may not come back to it. Perhaps I’ll cull a line or two from this writing. Or maybe I’ll like the finished result!

My latest just-for-the-fun-of-it project is based on a prompt from the book The Practice of Writing Poetry: Writing Exercises From Poets Who Teach, edited by Robin Behn.

This book is a treasure for anyone who wants to go deeper into their unconscious mind to reveal thoughts or feelings the waking mind refuses to acknowledge.

The prompt I’m working on is titled “A Journey to Nowhere” by poet and writer Susan Snively. Snively suggests beginning the poem with a predicament of some sort in which the speaker arrives at an unexpected location. The point is to interrupt our preconceived notions and let the poem take the poet on a journey, not the other way around.

Snively gives a few pointers about how to achieve a certain cohesion in what will be a long narrative poem. I’m following one of her suggestions by following an eight-line rhyme scheme:

ABACCBCA

My plan is to write a stanza a day during the month of April.

Here are my first two stanzas. I have no title and I don’t know where this poem will take me.

A shaft of light lusters the velvet green of hills
Like a woman’s hand smoothing pleats,
Soft as the delicate calm after taking nerve pills.
Look at me, I’m on top of the world
The child says. From between large clouds
A bird of prey soars like an omen. My heart beats
In my ears, from the climb, from the load
I carry, set aside for now. As the breath stills,

The mountains extend, like branches of mind,
Or mind attaches, an appendage of mountain.
The body thins here, as though it were a kind
Of muslin scrim between me, the air, the sun.
Now permeable, flapping like a gauze blouse in the breeze
clothes-pinned to a line, a ghost living with ease
Of movement, like the bird, the sun,
Tethered, but just barely, to the Pyrennes.
It’s enough to make me leave the body behind.

Ekphrasis

Writing to an image, especially a painting, helps me find inspiration. Ekphrasis, from ancient Greek, is a description of a visual work of art. Usually, ekphrastic poetry describes a painting, but some poems might enter a film or a sculpture.

Recent MacArthur Genius grant winner Terrance Hayes has a 20-part poem titled “Arbor for Butch,” written to a sculpture series by Martin Puryear. Hayes also experiments with form in this poem, as it is a pecha kucha.

The surreal paintings of Mexican artists Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington have sparked my creativity. My most recent ekphrastic poem, “The Women Have Gathered to Welcome Him Back to Himself,” explores a painting by Leonora Carrington titled The Temptation of St. Anthony. 

I’m pleased and honored that the journal Ekphrasis chose to publish this poem in their Fall/Winter 2014 issue, and that they have nominated it for a Pushcart Prize. St. Anthony  lives on through poetry!

Temptation of St. Anthony by Leonora Carrington

Poetry of Epiphany

Call it luck or synchronicity, either way I was happy to have run into Dan Veach at the Decatur Book Festival, because I returned home with a signed copy of his collection of poetry, Elephant Water.

Veach chronicles Elephant Water’s genesis within the structure of the book. He introduces each section with a biographical note about where he was when the poems were written, and at the back of the book he has a geographical list for easy reference.

Place plays a strong part in how these poems unfold, because the energy of the people, the land, the flora, and the fauna of each location inform the poems. Jane Hirschfield writes about Elephant Water, “The joy of these pages is a rare note in American poetry. Awareness infuses every page, as does close observation.” These poems are intimate with the spiritual pulse of life.

Chinese poetry and ink drawings have also added their touch to Veach’s palette. Each page includes one or more of Veach’s whimsical, delicate line drawings done in the Chinese style. Elephants, seals, moths, fish, birds, and dogs are not only the subjects of some of the poems, but they also lilt across the pages alongside the text in the form of drawings. The book cover, Veach’s own design, blends sky blues to watery indigos, providing an ethereal backdrop for his animalia.

It is rare pleasure to hold and read a book of poems for adult readers that includes original artwork by the author. Although Veach’s drawings come out of a time-honored tradition, it is one that has been somewhat neglected in recent times, at least in American verse.

William Blake is known primarily as a poet, but those who love his poetry also revel in his transcendental paintings and drawings. English poet Smith worked by drawing, and often the poems came out of the images that appeared first. And Richard Wilbur made line drawings to accompany his light verse. It is gratifying to see Veach continuing this poetic collaboration with visual art.

Another influence on Elephant Water is Veach’s love of music. He is a clarinetist, and I have heard him perform by reciting his poetry and playing the clarinet, a real treat. His love of music is evident in both the themes of some of the pieces and the attention he gives to the verse, with unobtrusive rhymes appearing here and there, a feathery, song-like punctuation.

The poet invites us to read the poems aloud. In his introductory lyric essay Veach writes, “For this is poetry with body as well as mind, poetry that invites you, like “My Long Thigh Bone,” to dance.

Elephant Water is published by Finishing Line Press, and can be purchased directly from the author at his website. Dan includes sample poems on the site for you to enjoy. You can also buy the book on Amazon.

If you’re in Atlanta October 8, you can hear Dan Veach recite his poems at Callenwolde Fine Arts Center.

Elephant Water, Book Cover Art by Dan Veach

Performance Poetry

Poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) is known and loved for her ballad-like poems and the ironic yet confessional lyrics she often paired with expressive drawings. But she was also one of the first performance poets–she created a performing persona for her poetry festival readings during the 1960s.  At the age of sixty  she wore lace stockings and pinafores to her readings, and she even sang the poems during her performances.

Many others have set Stevie’s poems to music. Here’s a jazz version of her poem “Mother Among the Dust Bins.”

Vic Chesnutt recorded “Not Waving But Drowning.”

In an essay I’m writing about Smith, I argue that listening to Stevie’s recordings provides another layer of meaning to the experience of her work. During my research, I’ve rekindled an interest in Spoken Word poets in general, and I’m thinking about how my own writing will change as a result of what I’m discovering.

More Performers:

Here is a quote from an interview on Stephen Mill’s Joe’s Jacket with poet Megan Volpert, who has performed her poetry and competed in Slam competitions. Megan has transitioned from her performance work (although she still gives entertaining, creative, and interactive readings) to writing poetry collections, but she has this to say about what she has learned from her both stage and writing experiences:

This is one thing I am pretty sure about though: a poem built for only the page or only the stage is most likely a failure. All poets ought to make the most of both.

Megan’s next project, Sonics in Warholia, will be released in December, 2011 by Sibling Rivalry Press.

Another inspirational performance poet is Sarah Kay. Listen to her tell her story on TED–you won’t even notice the time as she skips from one story to the next.

Statue in Honor of Francis Scott Key, “amateur poet” who wrote the lyrics to the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Art Is

Freeboarder has been at art school for a month, and already he’s questioning the need for an academy to teach him how to make something.

I’m proud of him for asking the questions. The same debate occurs in the world of poetry, with many wondering if there is a need for the now ubiquitous M.F.A. in creative writing.

One talented student told Freeboarder that “art is dead.” My answer to that statement is that art simply is. The student was probably trying to sound provocative and oracular. Maybe he wanted to psyche out his competition.

Going to art school allows the artist a chance to live within a community of skilled, committed people. Of course, we can create those communities ourselves, outside the Academy.

Atlanta has a thriving arts community that originates with the people. We have wall art, street sculptures, and spoken word events, all outside the ivory tower.

Freeboarder got a little shaken from the statement that art is dead. I told him that if art is dead, human culture is dead, because the act of making is an inborn, human right.

20110924-024927.jpg

20110924-024938.jpg

Practice

In an effort to work my way back to a daily writing practice, I’ve started sketching in my journal. It’s very relaxing because I have low expectations of the results. Drawing is a way for me to “rest on the page,” as Julia Cameron suggests in The Artist’s Way.

Another good writing book is Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. She practices Zen meditation, and she said one of her teachers suggested that maybe writing would be her ‘practice,’ as in a meditative practice.

She describes her daily writing as a focused free-write, not stream of consciousness. I’ve come to realize that my daily writing will not necessarily result in a poem or a story, but the practice itself if important to keep myself open to the world. Even when it’s as hot as a pizza oven in my city and I only like to go out in the evening.

Philosopher told me what he learned from his poetry teacher: if you sit down to write every day your creativity will come to you.

20110713-014611.jpg

Art Matters.

Here’s what I wrote to my representatives about the controversy surrounding  the puny 50 million dollar budget devoted to the arts that some conservatives would like to ax.

February 12, 2011

[recipient address was inserted here]

Dear [recipient name was inserted here],

As your constituent, I hope you will vote against cuts to funding for the
National Endowment for the Arts during consideration of the FY 2011
appropriations package.

A society without the arts would be a world where true feelings are
ignored or repressed. The people need the arts in order to be whole.

The same creativity that sent the first humans to the moon serves as the
bedrock for the arts-patchwork quilts, ballads, landscape paintings and
stand-up comedy mean as much to people as solar energy.

What about film, documentaries, storytelling, music, dance? Aren’t these
endeavors part of what makes a society thrive?

My son is an artist. As a high school senior he has spent four to five
hours a day outside of his regular school day to prepare a portfolio for
a professional art program. Taking away grants and fellowships would send
a very negative message to hardworking, talented young students like my
son.

Sincerely,

Christine Swint

Baltimore Art Dreams

We arrived in Baltimore last night, dropped off Freeboarder’s portfolio, and ventured into the cold to eat at an Indian restaurant, Freeboarder’s first exposure to this cuisine.

We had poori, vegetable biryani, and a few different curries. An aromatic, spicy meal for a dark, windy night in a new city.

And now we’re at MICA, an art school that was founded in 1826. The students are all standing in different lines to have their art portfolios reviewed.

MICA is hosting a National Portfolio Day, and over 50 schools have come to review portfolios. The students have big dreams that someone here today will tell them they have what it takes.

Freeboarder is in line to talk to The Cooper Union, one of the hardest schools to get into–if you’re accepted, you pay no tuition.

So of course the lines for this school are the longest, and the art is phenomenal.

Some of the parents are quite crabby with their kids. They’ve obviously invested a lot of money already in their children’s art, judging from the size and quality of some of the canvases I’ve seen.

I’ve found a quiet corner where I can study for my poetry final, but all I really want to do is eavesdrop and take pictures.

The Kermess

My in-laws had a print of “The Kermess” in their cottage. I used to look at it quite a bit, but I didn’t know it was depicting a particular dance until I read William Carlos William’s poem about the painting, titled, “The Dance.”

In the poem Williams focuses on the dancers’ bodies–their bellies and shanks in particular, and how strong the dancers must have been to prance about so lightly with such large frames.

I like how Brueghel painted common folk, people who carried their own wooden spoon with them in their back pockets so they would always have a handy utensil for dining. There’s a lot to imagine in the painting, and I can see why Williams wanted to write about it.

Williams often wrote about the poor, even though he was a doctor and highly educated. There’s a certain kind of mythologizing present, almost a sort of nostalgia, when someone who is not poor writes or depicts the stories or the misfortunes of others. I know many painters, filmmakers, and writers do just that.

In my own poems I think of writing about social problems, but I want to be careful about not appropriating someone else’s story as my own. To avoid this spurious representation of myself as the other, I need to do what Williams did–show how I am observing and recording my thoughts and impressions. In this way there is still a need for the first person singular.

Not to get too theoretical, since all I know about literary theory is what I’ve heard from grad students and the bits I’ve read on Wikipedia. There’s also an eerie documentary about Derrida that gave me a few hints.